October 7, 2015

QotD: The long, long history of slavery

Filed under: Africa, Asia, History, Middle East, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

What about slavery? Slavery certainly has its place among the horrors of humanity. But our “educators” today, along with the media, present a highly edited segment of the history of slavery. Those who have been through our schools and colleges, or who have seen our movies or television miniseries, may well come away thinking that slavery means white people enslaving black people. But slavery was a worldwide curse for thousands of years, as far back as recorded history goes.

Over all that expanse of time and space, it is very unlikely that most slaves, or most slave owners, were either black or white. Slavery was common among the vast populations in Asia. Slavery was also common among the Polynesians, and the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere enslaved other indigenous peoples before anyone on this side of the Atlantic had ever seen a European.

More whites were brought as slaves to North Africa than blacks brought as slaves to the United States or to the 13 colonies from which it was formed. White slaves were still being bought and sold in the Ottoman Empire, decades after blacks were freed in the United States.

Thomas Sowell, “Indoctrination by Grievance-Mongers: Anti-American educational elites need a dose of reality”, National Review, 2014-10-15.

September 17, 2015

Megan Geuss watched Star Trek – in order – so you don’t have to

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

By the time I started paying attention to the original Star Trek, it was already in syndication (and aside from the cartoon series, it was the only Star Trek) so I didn’t see the episodes in anything like their original order. Megan Geuss says I (and pretty much everyone else in my age cohort) missed a lot due to this:

Here at Ars Technica, we have Star Trek on the brain. A lot. It’s a thing most of us have strong opinions about, and without a physical office, sometimes the IRC watercooler chat devolves into half-hour-long discussions about the relative merits of such and such a character. That is, until a senior editor implores us to write up our thoughts instead of wasting time arguing idly over chat; we are writers, after all, and writing is what we ought to be doing during the work day.

I, too, have strong opinions about characters in Star Trek, but I came at the show from a much different perspective than most of my peers. My colleagues were astounded when I told them that I’d only seen one episode of Star Trek as a child (I don’t even remember the plot) and my first real exposure had been as an adult, when I watched the entirety of The Original Series and The Next Generation in order, over the course of three years or so.

My colleagues, and in fact almost everyone I meet who I end up talking to about Star Trek, can’t seem to understand why I’d do that. I realized a year ago that this disbelief comes from the fact that almost everyone who did watch Star Trek as a child watched it syndicated on TV, particularly The Original Series. While they may have seen all or close-to-all of the episodes in all the various series, they saw them randomly and sporadically over the course of an entire childhood, with other shows to fill the space in between.

Not I. Thanks to Netflix, I watched The Original Series over a two-year period, with other shows and movies in between, and I watched The Next Generation in a little under one year as my primary after-work TV. From a modern TV viewer’s perspective, the Original Series, with all of its 1960s storytelling quirks and anachronisms, was the hardest entry in Star Trek canon to get through. That’s what I’ll focus on here, because talking about both series from a novice’s point of view would make this article longer than the distance from Earth to the Delta Quadrant.

September 13, 2015

Markets in everything, Fan Expo edition

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At The Walrus, Jonathan Kay explains how Ron Weasley (and the whole Fan Expo celebrity photo “experience”) made him both sad and $300 poorer:

Photo by Jonathan Kay. Click to see full-sized image at The Walrus.

Photo by Jonathan Kay. Click to see full-sized image at The Walrus.

Fans of the TV show Entourage will remember the second-season episode in which Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) heads to San Diego’s Comic-Con International, dressed in prop-wardrobe Viking costume. Drama, we learn, had appeared in a (fictional) show called Viking Quest, starring as the warrior Tarvold. On the fan-convention circuit, Drama explained, he could rake in big money by signing autographs, and set conventioneers’ hearts aflutter with Tarvold’s signature cry of “Victory!” On Entourage, this seemed funny. In real life, I recently learned, it’s sad.

On Sunday, I took two of my daughters to the 2015 instalment of Fan Expo Canada, billed as “the largest Comics, Sci-fi, Horror, Anime, and Gaming event in Canada.” More than 100,000 fans show up annually for the four-day exhibition, which now sprawls over both buildings of the massive Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Under one roof, I was able to meet a life-size My Little Pony, compete in a Catan tournament, playtest emerging console video games, commission custom panels from famous cartoonists, pose with life-size Futurama characters, buy a fully functional 3D-chess set, and generally revel in all the various subcultures that the rest of society stigmatizes as dorky and juvenile. My girls and I have been to Fan Expo Canada three years in a row, and we always have a good time.

But my daughters are getting older. This year, for the first time, they were after more than just a Harry Potter wand and a Gryffindor T-shirt: They wanted to meet the real-life Harry Potter movie stars appearing at Fan Expo. Expecting to encounter nothing more than a real-life version of Drama’s Viking Quest subplot, I acquiesced, and we wandered over to celebrity row.

I was shockingly naive about how this process works. Before Sunday’s celebrity adventure, I’d assumed that one could mingle about and snap pictures with fan-con celebs for free, taking out your wallet only when you wanted a signed photo.

In fact, the best way to describe Fan Expo’s celebrity protocol is as a sort of Chicago Mercantile Exchange for human beings. Instead of live cattle, lean hogs, skimmed milk powder, cash-settled butter, and softwood pulp, this big board (displayed above) lists prices for Billy Dee Williams, Gillian Anderson, Danny Trejo, Neve Campbell, Norman Reedus, Skeet Ulrich, Zach Galligan, and fifty other stars and quasi-stars. The precision of the numbers suggests a fine-tuned demand-driven adjustment process that any commodities trader would recognize. Williams (Lando Calrissian from Star Wars, but you knew that) was listed at $57. Anderson (X-Files): $91. Danny Trejo (Machete): $74. Neve Campbell (Scream): $97. Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead): $130. Skeet Ulrich (Jericho): $68. Zach Galligan (Gremlins): $63. Just my luck: Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley, Harry Potter’s red-haired sidekick) was listed at $142 — highest on the board. I wanted to bail out. But having made the mistake of getting dragged this far, turning back wasn’t going to be a good-dad move.

September 8, 2015

Pessimism and doom-mongering still sells books and movies

Filed under: Books, Environment, Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Gregg Easterbrook reviews The End of Doom by Ronald Bailey:

Outside your window, living standards are rising, crime is declining, pollution is down, and longevity is increasing. But in pop culture, we’re all doomed. The Hunger Games films have been box-office titans, joined by World War Z, Interstellar, The Book of Eli, Divergent, The Road, and other big-budget Hollywood fare depicting various judgment days. Over in primetime, the world is ending on The Walking Dead, The Last Ship, The 100, and Under the Dome.

The same outlook obtains in nonfiction literature. Books that foresee doomsday — Collapse by Jared Diamond, The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett among them — win praise from commentators and sell briskly. Books contending that things basically are fine don’t do as well. One might think that optimism would be marketable to contemporary book buyers, who live very well by historical standards, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Readers prefer material that depicts them dwelling in the final generation. Perhaps declining religious belief in Armageddon has been replaced by an expectation of some natural-world version of the event.

Into this adverse market steps The End of Doom by Ronald Bailey, an impressively researched, voluminously detailed book arguing that the world is in better shape than commonly assumed. Bailey deflates doomsday by showing that human population growth does not mean ecological breakdown; that food supply increases faster than population and probably always will; that, far from depleted, most resources are sufficient to last for centuries; that air pollution in the United States is way down; and that cancer is in decline.

Specialists will argue about some of the studies Bailey cites to support these contentions. So much environmental research exists today, for example, that one can find a study to prove practically anything. But in the main, Bailey’s selection of research is fastidious and convincing.

Bailey spends too much time, though, on discredited trendy bleakness from the 1960s and 1970s — such as Paul Ehrlich’s global-famine predictions and the 1972 Club of Rome report. One can practically hear dead horses saying, “Stop flogging me.” The End of Doom redeems itself with a clever chapter on how precautionary principles boil down to this rule: never do anything for the first time. “Anything new is guilty until proven innocent,” Bailey writes, but he goes on to chronicle how many new ideas denounced as dangerous turned out instead to make life less risky.

September 4, 2015

America’s grievance culture

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Kevin Yuill on the Virginia shootings and what it says about the wider culture in the west:

Had [Some Asshole]* carried out the killing of two ex-colleagues at Virginia TV station WDBJ 10 years ago, it might have been dismissed as just another case of a disgruntled former employee ‘going postal’ – a phrase referencing several incidents from the mid-1980s onwards involving United States Postal Service (USPS) workers shooting and killing fellow workers. But the fact that [Some Asshole]’s shooting of Alison Parker and Adam Ward was filmed, in a world dominated by YouTube and Facebook, ensured the story gained global coverage.

Predictably, we heard the calls for gun control before the victims’ bodies were cold. Opportunists like broadcaster Piers Morgan, President Barack Obama and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton appear to welcome such tragedies so they can sanctimoniously read their pre-prepared statements. As a hysterical Morgan put it, the Virginia shooting ‘sum[med] up [America’s] appalling, senseless gun culture’. This kind of emotive finger-wagging is to be expected. Those on the other side of the political spectrum blamed mental illness. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump said of the incident, ‘This isn’t a gun problem, this is a mental problem’.


The Virginia shooting draws attention to disturbing elements of American culture that undercut the simplistic ‘blame the guns’ media coverage. It points to the brittle culture of offence, whereby any behaviour considered disagreeable to some is understood as a personal slight. It touches on the bizarre narcissism of the selfie, in which only moments caught on camera are deemed real. And it indicts a powerful sense of entitlement, in which individuals demand automatic acceptance of who they are from others, and assume that any problems they create are always someone else’s fault.

An experienced newsman, [Some Asshole] also played upon the voyeuristic appetite for online sensation (something the Islamic State has successfully exploited). By filming his murders, he achieved a notoriety far in excess of his ‘going postal’ predecessors. Yet even that notoriety is someone else’s fault, with commentators also blaming Google and Facebook for allowing people to watch what was essentially a snuff movie. This is an evasion of responsibility on the part of all who searched out the video of the shooting.

Rather than blame guns, social media or mental illness for the Virginia shooting, perhaps we should look at the poisonous complaint-and-grievance culture that has flourished as a result of people’s refusal to take responsibility for their lives.

* Rather than give the killer any “glory” by using his name, I’m following the recommendations of the Some Asshole Initiative.

August 31, 2015

Ten years later – how the media covered Katrina

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

W. Joseph Campbell describes the media’s role in contributing to — and sometimes inventing — the persistent myths of what happened in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina made land-fall:

I call it the “myth of superlative reporting,” the notion that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught 10 years ago, journalists bravely held powerful officials accountable for their inept responses to a storm blamed for the deaths of 1,800 people.

Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchorman, gave voice to the “myth of superlative reporting,” describing Katrina coverage as “one of the quintessential great moments in television news,” ranking “right there with the Nixon/Kennedy debates, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate coverage, you name it.”

A quintessential great moment is was not.

The reporting of Katrina, as I wrote in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong” in describing horrors the storm supposedly unleashed across New Orleans after making landfall east of the city on August 29, 2005.

Journalists reported snipers firing at medical personnel, I noted. They reported shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center in New Orleans. They told of bodies being stacked like cordwood inside the Convention Center.

News reports also spoke of roving gangs that terrorized occupants of the Louisiana Superdome, where many people had taken shelter. The reports said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

None of those reports, as it turned out, was verified or substantiated.

“If anyone rioted,” said a bipartisan congressional report about Katrina, “it was the media.

“Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

Erroneous and over-the-top reporting, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”

Here’s what I wrote ten years ago, based on the media reports coming out of Louisiana:


August 29, 2015

The bad news about good news

Filed under: Economics, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Strategy Page, an explanation for why most people think the world is going to hell, despite the facts pointing in all kinds of positive and hopeful directions:

One of the ironies of the post-Cold War world is that most people get the impression that things are getting worse and worse while for the majority of people on the planet life is getting better. Worldwide poverty and death rates are plummeting while income and reported (via opinion surveys) satisfaction are way up. Many major diseases (like tetanus and polio) have nearly been eliminated and malaria, the disease that has killed more people than any other throughout history, is in decline because of medical advances. War related deaths have been declining since World War II ended in 1945 and that decline continued after the Cold War eliminated most communist governments in 1991. Why do most people think otherwise? You can blame the mass media and their most effective marketing tool; FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).

Mass media first appeared in the mid-19th century with the development of the steam press, which made cheap-enough-to-reach-a-mass-audience newspapers possible. Editors quickly learned that FUD sells best. Politicians, rebels, and even advertisers found that FUD was a very effective tool to grab attention and change attitudes. Put another way, excitement sells, and the best way to excite readers is to scare them.

Modern terrorism, based on using murderous mass attacks on the public to trigger a flurry of media coverage, came out of this. The 19th century anarchists, followed by the Bolsheviks (communists), several fascist movements (like the Nazis), and many others, all used this media proclivity to jump on terrorist acts in order to scare readers into buying more newspapers, or supporting some extremist cause or another. The terrorists got the publicity and attention they wanted, which sometimes led to acquiring political power as well.

Radio appeared in the 1930s and this made it even easier to reach literate as well as illiterate populations. Combining radio and FUD allowed communism and fascism to spread far and fast in the 1930s. The sad fact is that this situation is not unknown among journalists. Many of them have been complaining about it for over a century. No one has been able to come up with a solution. Good news doesn’t sell. And the pursuit of scary headlines that do has created a race to the bottom.

It’s probably rational for mass media outlets to concentrate on the vivid, shocking bad news … because it grabs the attention and sells more newspapers and encourages more people to watch video reports. Good news? Well, it’s nice to hear, but it’s neither urgent nor compelling (except cat videos on YouTube, of course). You might like to hear it, but it’s not urgent and compelling … you can catch up on that anytime. A flood? An earthquake? A breaking story about a hostage situation? You’ll pay attention whether you want to or not. And that sells newspapers and gets ad revenue for networks.

August 14, 2015

Toronto discovers the Streisand Effect

Filed under: Cancon, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I was in the break room at work the other day, and happened to see our local 24-hour TV newsfeed was discussing a hateful hate-peddling hate-monger who’d just arrived in Toronto. A shorter blurb was running in the elevator monitor, as I discovered when I went downstairs for lunch. While I’d heard of Roosh V. before, I wasn’t aware that he was so well known to the Toronto media. Richard Anderson explains how Toronto’s media reactions to Daryush Valizadeh have been like a multi-million dollar gift of free advertising:

Rather than being a raving misogynist Valizadeh espouses an odd amalgam of traditional gender roles and casual sex advice. Very little of what he writes would have been considered terribly controversial even twenty years ago. His criticisms of feminism are pretty much standard conservative fare albeit expressed in a more colourful and direct manner. He might not be your cup of tea but he’s hardly the second coming of Caligula.

Displaying the self-righteous puritanism that is characteristic of modern feminism, a petition has been set-up at Change.org, complete with out of context quotes, demanding that Valizadeh be driven from Canada. This is being done on the grounds of our old friend hate speech. Apparently coaching awkward young men on how to pick up women in bars is now a crime in modern Canada.

Some of Valizadeh’s sexual advice is tacky or creepy. It would, however, take a Pollyanna’s understanding of human sexuality to find it either hateful or angry. What we are seeing is not criticism being directed at an individual for espousing somewhat recherché views, it’s an electronic lynch mob attempting to silence dissent from the feminist consensus.

Until this recent controversy Valizadeh was an obscure figure outside of Manosphere. Now thanks to these tin eared feminist campaigners he has been given millions of dollars in free publicity. It’s a classic example of the Streisand effect. Instead of shutting Valizadeh down they’ve elevated him into a kind of cult hero status that is only likely to increase in the months ahead.

QotD: When “the science” shows what you want it to show

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

To see what I mean, consider the recent tradition of psychology articles showing that conservatives are authoritarian while liberals are not. Jeremy Frimer, who runs the Moral Psychology Lab at the University of Winnipeg, realized that who you asked those questions about might matter — did conservatives defer to the military because they were authoritarians or because the military is considered a “conservative” institution? And, lo and behold, when he asked similar questions about, say, environmentalists, the liberals were the authoritarians.

It also matters because social psychology, and social science more generally, has a replication problem, which was recently covered in a very good article at Slate. Take the infamous “paradox of choice” study that found that offering a few kinds of jam samples at a supermarket was more likely to result in a purchase than offering dozens of samples. A team of researchers that tried to replicate this — and other famous experiments — completely failed. When they did a survey of the literature, they found that the array of choices generally had no important effect either way. The replication problem is bad enough in one subfield of social psychology that Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote an open letter to its practitioners, urging them to institute tougher replication protocols before their field implodes. A recent issue of Social Psychology was devoted to trying to replicate famous studies in the discipline; more than a third failed replication.

Let me pause here to say something important: Though I mentioned bias above, I’m not suggesting in any way that the replication problems mostly happen because social scientists are in on a conspiracy against conservatives to do bad research or to make stuff up. The replication problems mostly happen because, as the Slate article notes, journals are biased toward publishing positive and novel results, not “there was no relationship, which is exactly what you’d expect.” So readers see the one paper showing that something interesting happened, not the (possibly many more) teams that got muddy data showing no particular effect. If you do enough studies on enough small groups, you will occasionally get an effect just by random chance. But because those are the only studies that get published, it seems like “science has proved …” whatever those papers are about.

Megan McArdle, “The Truth About Truthiness”, Bloomberg View, 2014-09-08.

August 8, 2015

Election issue – the Netflix tax, “much ado about nothing?”

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Michael Geist looks at the major federal party leaders’ reactions to discussion of a “Netflix tax”:

As part of the digital strategy discussion, I stated that questions abound, including “are new regulations over services such as Netflix on the horizon?”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed that question yesterday with a video and tweet in which he pledged that the Conservatives will never tax digital streaming services like Netflix and Youtube. Harper added that the Liberals and NDP have left the door open to a Netflix tax, but that he is 100% opposed, “always has been, always will be.” Both opposition parties quickly responded with the NDP saying they have not proposed a Netflix tax and the Liberals saying they have never supported a Netflix tax and do not support a Netflix tax.

So is this much ado about nothing?

Not exactly. First, there are groups and provincial governments that support a Netflix tax or mandated contribution to fund the creation of Canadian content. These include the Ontario and Quebec governments along with many creator groups. Earlier this year, I obtained documents under the Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that showed that the Ontario government spent months working toward a recommendation to expand the regulation of new media, including Canadian content requirements and increased regulation of foreign online video providers.

Second, while the Liberals and NDP have not proposed a Netflix tax, they have called for requirements that online video providers disclose revenues, Canadian content availability, and subscriber numbers to Canadian regulators. This is a very soft form of regulation that Netflix and Google have rejected as beyond the power of the Broadcasting Act. Providing information to allow for more informed regulatory analysis does not seem particularly unreasonable, but the companies unsurprisingly fear that that analysis could ultimately lead to calls for more regulation or payments.

Third, the real Netflix tax is the prospect of a levying sales taxes on digital products such as music downloads or online video services. It was the Conservatives that raised this possibility in the 2014 budget, launching a consultation on the issue that garnered supportive comments from companies such as Rogers, which noted that Canadian-based online video services such as Shomi operate at a disadvantage since they collect GST/HST, but Netflix does not. With many countries moving toward some form of digital taxation (as I noted in a January 2015 column on the issue, the real challenge lies in the cost of implementation), it seems inevitable that Canada will do the same in order to level the playing field and recoup a growing source of revenue. The Conservatives would presumably seek to differentiate between a generally applicable sales tax and a tax or fee targeting online streaming services, though many may feel it is a distinction without a difference.

July 29, 2015

Camille Paglia on the parallels between Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In Slate, David Daley talks to Camille Paglia about the similarities between the former President and the former entertainer:

Right from the start, when the Bill Cosby scandal surfaced, I knew it was not going to bode well for Hillary’s campaign, because young women today have a much lower threshold for tolerance of these matters. The horrible truth is that the feminist establishment in the U.S., led by Gloria Steinem, did in fact apply a double standard to Bill Clinton’s behavior because he was a Democrat. The Democratic president and administration supported abortion rights, and therefore it didn’t matter what his personal behavior was.

But we’re living in a different time right now, and young women have absolutely no memory of Bill Clinton. It’s like ancient history for them; there’s no reservoir of accumulated good will. And the actual facts of the matter are that Bill Clinton was a serial abuser of working-class women – he had exploited that power differential even in Arkansas. And then in the case of Monica Lewinsky – I mean, the failure on the part of Gloria Steinem and company to protect her was an absolute disgrace in feminist history! What bigger power differential could there be than between the president of the United States and this poor innocent girl? Not only an intern but clearly a girl who had a kind of pleading, open look to her – somebody who was looking for a father figure.

I was enraged! My publicly stated opinion at the time was that I don’t care what public figures do in their private life. It’s a very sophisticated style among the French, and generally in Europe, where the heads of state tend to have mistresses on the side. So what? That doesn’t bother me at all! But the point is, they are sophisticated affairs that the European politicians have, while the Clinton episode was a disgrace.


So have the times and standards changed enough that Clinton would be seen as Cosby, if he was president today?

Oh, yes! There’s absolutely no doubt, especially in this age of instant social media. In most of these cases, like the Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby stories, there’s been a complete neglect of psychology. We’re in a period right now where nobody asks any questions about psychology. No one has any feeling for human motivation. No one talks about sexuality in terms of emotional needs and symbolism and the legacy of childhood. Sexuality has been politicized – “Don’t ask any questions!” “No discussion!” “Gay is exactly equivalent to straight!” And thus in this period of psychological blindness or inertness, our art has become dull. There’s nothing interesting being written – in fiction or plays or movies. Everything is boring because of our failure to ask psychological questions.

So I say there is a big parallel between Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton–aside from their initials! Young feminists need to understand that this abusive behavior by powerful men signifies their sense that female power is much bigger than they are! These two people, Clinton and Cosby, are emotionally infantile – they’re engaged in a war with female power. It has something to do with their early sense of being smothered by female power – and this pathetic, abusive and criminal behavior is the result of their sense of inadequacy.

Now, in order to understand that, people would have to read my first book, Sexual Personae – which of course is far too complex for the ordinary feminist or academic mind! It’s too complex because it requires a sense of the ambivalence of human life. Everything is not black and white, for heaven’s sake! We are formed by all kinds of strange or vague memories from childhood. That kind of understanding is needed to see that Cosby was involved in a symbiotic, push-pull thing with his wife, where he went out and did these awful things to assert his own independence. But for that, he required the women to be inert. He needed them to be dead! Cosby is actually a necrophiliac – a style that was popular in the late Victorian period in the nineteenth-century.

July 27, 2015

QotD: The herbivorization of the urbanites

Filed under: Humour, Media, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

OMG! You guys! That whole “Eloi and Morlocks” thing? It’s coming true! If you know how to work a screwdriver, your descendents really are doomed to an underground life, eating the descendents of telephone sanitizers and TV news anchors.

As evidence, I present the following snippet of dialogue from a TODAY® show segment where investigative reporter Jeff Rossen learns how to deal with a kitchen fire. (I seem to recall this being covered in second grade by a cartoon dalmatian, but that’s neither here nor there.)

I am including in the dialogue the parts where I was yelling at the television.

    Savannah Guthrie: “A lot of us are intimidated though, like, by the idea of turning it on…” *makes gestures and facial expressions as though she’s holding a well-greased and annoyed cobra at arms length*

    Me: “Wut?” *tilts head on side like RCA Victor mascot*

    Jeff Rossen: “I… I will tell you, I actually never used a fire extinguisher before and I thought there would be a kickback and I was afraid to use it…”

    Me: (yelling) “OH. MY. GOD! It’s a fire extinguisher, you sackless herbivore! What are you afraid of, you big girl’s blouse?”

It had honestly never crossed my mind that a grown human being could feel an ounce of trepidation about a fire extinguisher. That’s like… I don’t know, being scared of pillows, or footstools, or filing cabinets. And whatever you call this bizarre phobia, two out of five Manhattanites on my TV screen just admitted to suffering from it!

Tam, “Still more proof that speciation is well underway”, View From The Porch, 2015-07-16.

July 24, 2015

The long-term damage to scientific credibility

Filed under: Health, Media, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Matt Ridley on the danger to all scientific fields when one field is willing to subordinate fact to political expediency:

For much of my life I have been a science writer. That means I eavesdrop on what’s going on in laboratories so I can tell interesting stories. It’s analogous to the way art critics write about art, but with a difference: we “science critics” rarely criticise. If we think a scientific paper is dumb, we just ignore it. There’s too much good stuff coming out of science to waste time knocking the bad stuff.

Sure, we occasionally take a swipe at pseudoscience — homeopathy, astrology, claims that genetically modified food causes cancer, and so on. But the great thing about science is that it’s self-correcting. The good drives out the bad, because experiments get replicated and hypotheses put to the test. So a really bad idea cannot survive long in science.

Or so I used to think. Now, thanks largely to climate science, I have changed my mind. It turns out bad ideas can persist in science for decades, and surrounded by myrmidons of furious defenders they can turn into intolerant dogmas.

This should have been obvious to me. Lysenkoism, a pseudo-biological theory that plants (and people) could be trained to change their heritable natures, helped starve millions and yet persisted for decades in the Soviet Union, reaching its zenith under Nikita Khrushchev. The theory that dietary fat causes obesity and heart disease, based on a couple of terrible studies in the 1950s, became unchallenged orthodoxy and is only now fading slowly.

What these two ideas have in common is that they had political support, which enabled them to monopolise debate. Scientists are just as prone as anybody else to “confirmation bias”, the tendency we all have to seek evidence that supports our favoured hypothesis and dismiss evidence that contradicts it—as if we were counsel for the defence. It’s tosh that scientists always try to disprove their own theories, as they sometimes claim, and nor should they. But they do try to disprove each other’s. Science has always been decentralised, so Professor Smith challenges Professor Jones’s claims, and that’s what keeps science honest.

What went wrong with Lysenko and dietary fat was that in each case a monopoly was established. Lysenko’s opponents were imprisoned or killed. Nina Teicholz’s book The Big Fat Surprise shows in devastating detail how opponents of Ancel Keys’s dietary fat hypothesis were starved of grants and frozen out of the debate by an intolerant consensus backed by vested interests, echoed and amplified by a docile press.

July 21, 2015

Dave Chappelle’s re-launch

Filed under: Humour, Liberty, Media, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At sp!ked, Tom Slater looks at Dave Chapelle’s new comedy routines:

In his own words, Dave Chappelle is the Bigfoot of comedy; a rarely seen legend whose long absence from the stage has only secured his status. The stand-up, actor and writer, who found global success in the mid-2000s for his Comedy Central hit Chappelle’s Show, walked away from a $50 million deal for a third season in 2006, after fame and showbiz politics began to weigh heavy on his shoulders. For the past nine years, he’s been a borderline recluse – living on a farm in Ohio, raising his children and doing the odd, unannounced stand-up gig in mobbed comedy clubs.

Now, he’s making his comeback. Touring across America and, this past week, doing a sold-out seven-night run at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, it’s as if he was never gone. And yet, he has returned to a circuit that is not what it was.

‘Are you a Muslim?’, an affable doorman asked my mate, as we handed over our tickets for Monday night’s Apollo show. He wasn’t on counterterror duty. There’d been a few incidents, you see, during the run so far, as Chappelle’s caustic jibes had ruffled some feathers. ‘He’s got a joke in there about transgenders, and one guy the other night just got up, started shouting and then ran out.’ It seemed our doorman had taken it upon himself to trigger-warn any potential targets of Chappelle’s punchlines.

It was a strange question. Not least because Chappelle is a Muslim, and anyone who comes to one of his shows should know what they’re getting. Like his hero Richard Pryor before him, Chappelle has a unique ability to craft edgy, racially charged and often scatological humour and serve it up to a mainstream audience. Chappelle’s Show, which broke all records at the time for DVD sales, ended its first episode with an extended skit about a blind white-supremacist author who is unaware he is black. It was one hell of a mission statement.

July 15, 2015

The media and free speech coverage

Filed under: Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Popehat, Ken White explains what to look for in how the media subtly (or not-so-subtly) introduce pro-censorship memes when it covers free speech issues:

American journalists and pundits rely upon vigorous free speech, but are not reliable supporters of it. They both instruct and reflect their fickle audience.

It’s easy to spot overt calls for censorship from the commentariat. Those have become more common in the wake of both tumultuous events (like the violence questionably attributed to the “Innocence of Muslims” video, or Pamela Geller’s “Draw Muhammad” contest) and mundane ones (like fraternity brothers recorded indulging in racist chants).

But it’s harder to detect the subtle pro-censorship assumptions and rhetorical devices that permeate media coverage of free speech controversies. In discussing our First Amendment rights, the media routinely begs the question — it adopts stock phrases and concepts that presume that censorship is desirable or constitutional, and then tries to pass the result off as neutral analysis. This promotes civic ignorance and empowers deliberate censors.

Fortunately, this ain’t rocket science. Americans can train themselves to detect and question the media’s pro-censorship tropes. I’ve collected some of the most pervasive and familiar ones. This post is designed as a resource, and I’ll add to it as people point out more examples and more tropes.

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